Review: ‘How to Fix a Primary,’ starring Abdul El-Sayed

October 31, 2020

by Carla Hay

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Abdul El-Sayed in “How to Fix a Primary” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“How to Fix a Primary”

Directed by Brittany Huckabee 

Culture Representation: The documentary “How to Fix a Primary,” which is about Abdul El-Sayed’s 2018 campaign to become governor of Michigan, features a racially diverse group of people (white people, African Americans, Asians and Latinos), who are mostly political progressives, discussing the campaign.

Culture Clash: El-Sayed, who is a progressive Democrat, contends that he faced an uphill battle against well-funded establishment factions of the Democratic Party that unfairly squeeze out upstart “outsider” Democratic candidates.

Culture Audience: “How to Fix a Primary” will primarily appeal to people who like watching political documentaries about progressive liberals or “underdog” political candidates.

Abdul El-Sayed in “How to Fix a Primary” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

It’s really no secret that campaign funds and political connections play major roles in the likelihood that a political candidate can get elected. But is the system rigged for “establishment” candidates to get unfair advantages over “outsider” candidates, even those who are from the same political party? In the case of medical doctor Abdul El-Sayed, a progressive Democrat who lost the 2018 primary election to become Michigan’s governor, the answer is a resounding “yes,” according to the documentary “How to Fix a Primary.”

Directed by Brittany Huckabee, “How to Fix a Primary” is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at El-Sayed’s ill-fated campaign, although at times the movie looks more like an electronic press kit to promote El-Sayed than an objective documentary that takes an unflinching look at any of his flaws. People don’t have to be a Democrat or a progressive liberal to enjoy watching this documentary. However, people who watch “How to Fix a Primary” are more likely to enjoy it if they’re inclined to root for “outsider” political candidates who take bold risks to fight for what they believe, even if the odds and many naysayers/doubters are stacked against these “outsider” candidates.

El-Sayed (who is known as a CNN commentator) is an Egyptian American who is also Muslim. He is very proud of and unapologetic about who he is, but he is also well-aware that some voters automatically won’t support him because of his ethnicity and religion. However, his campaign was geared largely to open-minded progressives who wanted something different from the “status quo” in a Michigan governor.

Born in Detroit in 1984, El-Sayed is a Rhodes Scholar with degrees from the University of Michigan, Oxford University and Columbia University. He served as executive director of the Detroit Health Department, as well as Health Officer for the city of Detroit, from 2015 to 2017. He also used to be an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia University. El-Sayed married his wife Sarah Jukaku while they were in college in 2006 (she is shown as a supportive spouse in a few scenes in the documentary), and their first child (a daughter named Emmalee) was born during his 2018 Michigan gubernatorial campaign.

Despite his background as a privileged professional, El-Sayed’s overall campaign message was that he was a champion for “everyday people,” and he refused to take campaign money from corporate donors. His candidate platform was largely about reforming Michigan’s government policies to be more uplifting and beneficial to the working-class and poor and to fund his proposed programs mainly by increasing taxes on the wealthy.

Health care, criminal-justice reforms, infrastructure and Michigan’s polluted water crisis were among the top priorities on his agenda. (He is a big proponent of Medicare for All.) If El-Sayed had won the general election, he would have been the first Muslim to become a state governor in the United States. In the movie, he’s shown to be a political candidate who is passionate, articulate and approachable. However, compared to his main Democratic opponents, the documentary portrays him as an under-funded “doomed” candidate because he wasn’t willing to go to certain lengths in order to win.

Within the Democratic Party, he faced stiff competition from two very different middle-aged candidates. Gretchen Whitmer, who won the 2018 primary election and general election to become Michigan’s governor, was considered the “establishment” candidate who got millions in campaign money from corporate donors. She served in the Michigan House of Representatives from 2001 to 2006, and in the Michigan Senate from 2006 to 2015. Shri Thanedar, an Indian immigrant and self-made millionaire entrepreneur, spent his own money on his political campaign. Thanedar used his experience in business and his “political outsider” status as reasons to vote for him because, just like El-Sayed, he promised to shake up Michigan’s government with progressive changes.

Because “How to Fix a Primary” is obviously sympathetic to El-Sayed and his campaign, the documentary takes a very scathing critical look at Whitmer and Thanedar. Whitmer is portrayed as a political hack, a corporate sell-out and someone who relied too heavily on her “Fix the Damn Roads” catchphrase for her campaign. El-Sayed says in the documentary that Michigan’s water crisis should’ve been Whitmer’s bigger priority than fixing roads. Thanedar is portrayed as a power-hungry opportunist, with a history of shady business practices, who wanted to buy his way into becoming Michigan’s governor. El-Sayed’s campaign also accuses Thanedar of not being a true Democrat, based on reports that he chose to run as a Democrat instead of as a Republican because Thanedar thought he would have a better chance of winning as a Democrat.

However valid those criticisms might or might not be, the movie’s biggest shortcoming is that the filmmakers place almost no scrutiny on El-Sayed, who’s portrayed as morally righteous and as close to “perfect” as a politician can be. The reality is that no politician is as “perfect” as this documentary wants El-Sayed to look. In the documentary, the filmmakers do not ask him to reflect on any past personal or professional mistakes and what he learned from them. All of the televised debate footage in the documentary is carefully edited so that only El-Sayed’s best soundbites are used.

It seems like the filmmakers were afraid to expose anything that would make El-Sayed look less than perfect. But by conveniently erasing or not mentioning anything in the film that makes El-Sayed look like a human being who makes mistakes like everyone else does, it actually undermines his calculated efforts to appear to be a “regular guy” fighting for Michigan communities who are underrepresented and often-overlooked. El-Sayed mentions in the documentary that he gets hate mail and he had to hire a security staffer, but that’s standard for anyone running for a high-profile public office.

The people on El-Sayed’s campaign team who get the most screen time are also portrayed as social justice warriors who think they’re immune to corruption and are ready to accuse their opponents of playing dirty. (Almost all of his campaign workers are under the age of 40.) The top-level people on El-Sayed’s team who are featured in the documentary are campaign manager Max Glass, deputy campaign manager Claire Sandberg, policy director Rhiana Gunn-Wright and communications director Adam Joseph.

There’s only one scene in the documentary where El-Sayed is personally confronted by a critic. After a campaign appearance, while he is surrounded by people recording him with their phones, an extreme right-wing YouTube personality named Laura Loomer asks El-Sayed how he can claim to be a devout Muslim and also be an ally to the LGBTQ community, since the Muslim religion teaches that homosexuality is morally wrong. El-Sayed is tactfully gracious in his response: “What’s beautiful about this country is that I choose my own faith, and you choose yours or none at all.”

Loomer tries to press the issue, but El-Sayed eventually cuts off her line of questioning and ends up leaving. As he departs in the hallway, he says to his security personnel about being ambushed by Loomer: “You guys have got to jump on that way faster.” Loomer, who is known for expressing conspiracy theories and anti-Muslim rhetoric, eventually became a political candidate herself: In the 2020 elections, she was the Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives to represent Florida’s 21st congressional district, where Donald Trump lives.

If you were to believe everything presented in this documentary, El-Sayed was the only Democratic candidate who had a “clean” campaign in this Michigan gubernatorial election. Meanwhile, there’s a reason why so many voters mistrust all politicians: There’s a widespread belief that all politicians eventually do secret deals that benefit the politicians, not the people they’re supposed to serve.

But according to Sandberg, progressive Democrats are the most honest factions of the Democratic Party, compared to moderate Democrats who are part of the establishment. In the documentary, she compares the Republican Party and the Democratic Party to feuding crime families: “The best analogy that I can think of for the situation progressives are in to compete in these types of elections is that there’s a war going on between two different crime families. And progressives are legitimate business operators trying to compete against these two warring crime families.”

Sandberg adds of establishment politicians, “They control the process. They control the media. They control the money. And it’s incredibly difficult to take them on.” Later in the documentary, in one of the movie’s most compelling scenes, Sandberg attends a Michigan board of elections hearing where she presents her campaign team’s case that Thanedar should be removed from the ballot because he allegedly collected thousands of fraudulent signatures. El-Sayed’s team wanted the board of elections to investigate and find that Thanedar did not have the minimum 15,000 legitimate voter signatures required to be a candidate for Michigan governor.

Leading up to this crucial hearing, the documentary showed the painstaking work that El-Sayed’s campaign workers put into comparing thousands of signatures against voter registrations, to see if the signatures matched what was on file, and to find any signatures that could be disqualified. For example, voters could not sign election petitions for more than one gubernatorial candidate. Signatures could also be disqualified if they belonged to people who weren’t registered voters at the time they signed.

The board’s decision is what El-Sayed’s team did not expect. But in hindsight, El-Sayed’s campaign staffers say in the documentary that the decision was rigged from the beginning. Sandberg places most of the blame on board of elections member Julie Matuzak, a Whitmer supporter who was an American Federation of Teachers lobbyist and someone whom Sandberg says was also running a “dark money” group that was funneling donations into Whitmer’s campaign. It’s a conflict of interest that would be one of the reasons why Whitmer’s fundraising for this campaign came under legal scrutiny in 2019.

The documentary also shows how El-Sayed’s opponents tried to discredit his eligibility by claiming he hadn’t lived in Michigan long enough to be qualified to run for governor of Michigan. Under Michigan law, a candidate for governor must be a Michigan resident who lived in Michigan for the four consecutive years before the election year. El-Sayed lived and voted in New York City in 2012, but he had been living in Michigan for at least four years when he declared his gubernatorial candidacy in 2017. 

However, this question over his eligibility (which was eventually resolved in his favor by a Michigan court) and the media attention about this issue ended up damaging El-Sayed’s campaign, according to Glass, who previously worked on campaigns for Democratic politicians Tulsi Gabbard and Seth Moulton. Gunn-Wright comes right out and says that racism was at the root of the accusation against El-Sayed. Even though the accusation against El-Sayed was proven to be false, it decreased voter confidence in El-Sayed and hurt his fundraising. At one point in the documentary, Glass dejectedly tells campaign workers in a meeting that they only have $474,000 in campaign funds, while Whitmer is estimated to have raised $4.5 million for her campaign.

Money can make or break a campaign, but that’s true for politicians of any political leaning, not just progressive Democrats. And plenty of white politicians have been accused of carpetbagging or not being eligible for a campaign, based on previous residences, so it’s not an accusation that’s unique to non-white candidates. El-Sayed and Glass both comment that when El-Sayed raised $1 million in donations earlier in the campaign, that’s when El-Sayed’s political opponents (Democrats and Republicans) began to see him as a threat, and accusations soon followed that El-Sayed was not an eligible candidate based on his residential history. In other words, money played more of a role than racial identity in El-Sayed being perceived as a threat and targeted for elimination by the competition.

Although the documentary would like to portray Whitmer and Thanedar as the villains in this campaign, it’s clear that high-profile progressives in the Democratic Party weren’t exactly rushing to align themselves with El-Sayed in this campaign. El-Sayed’s campaign team tried in vain for about a year to get the endorsement of Bernie Sanders, who held off on endorsing El-Sayed until just a few days before the primary election day. El-Sayed’s campaign manager Glass comments in the film that although Sanders’ endorsement was appreciated, that public vote of confidence from Sanders was too late. 

One exception to El-Sayed’s relative lack of support from high-profile progressive Democrats was Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who was an early political ally of El-Sayed’s, before she became a star in the Democratic Party. Ocasio-Cortez and El-Sayed share a kinship because they were in similar situations in the 2018 elections: As young people of color running for political office for the first time, they branded themselves as progressive “outsiders” who want to shake up the establishment. An early scene in “How to Fix a Primary” shows El-Sayed giving Ocasio-Cortez a friendly tour of Detroit. (The Netflix documentary “Knock Down the House” gives further insight into why Ocasio-Cortez won her 2018 election.)

Despite the flaw of being heavily biased in portraying El-Sayed in the best possible light, “How to Fix a Primary” does an admirable job of putting his campaign in a larger context of how much can be bought and sold in an election in order for a candidate to win. It’s not a new issue, nor will this documentary solve the problem. Political corruption and voter mistrust will continue to affect the outcome of elections. But at least the film takes a unique look at the journey that one political candidate took to try to push back against what he sees as a rigged system.

Gravitas Ventures released “How to Fix a Primary” on digital, VOD, Blu-ray and DVD on October 20, 2020.

Review: ‘Once Upon a River,’ starring Kenadi DelaCerna, John Ashton, Tatanka Means, Ajuawak Kapashesit, Sam Straley, Coburn Goss, Lindsay Pulsipher and Kenn E. Head

October 5, 2020

by Carla Hay

Kenadi DelaCerna in “Once Upon a River” (Photo by Daniel Klutznick/Film Movement)

“Once Upon a River”

Directed by Haroula Rose

Culture Representation: Taking place in rural Michigan in 1977, the dramatic film “Once Upon a River” features a cast of Native Americans and white people (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 15-year-old girl experiences trauma and tragedies before, during and after her quest to find her mother, who abandoned her family the year before.

Culture Audience: “Once Upon a River” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in coming-of-age stories that lay it on thick with life’s harsh realities.

Kenadi DelaCerna and Tatanka Means in “Once Upon a River” (Photo by Daniel Klutznick/Film Movement)

There will be a point when anyone watching the dramatic film “Once Upon a River” will probably think, “How much more tragedy can one person take? What else can go wrong?” This emotionally moving film tells the story of a 15-year-old Native American girl in Michigan who goes through a lot of trauma in a relatively short period of time and who goes on a quest to find the mother who abandoned her. Kenadi DelaCerna makes a striking feature-film debut as the story’s beleaguered teenage protagonist who finds out how resilient she can be when so many bad things keep happening to her.

“Once Upon a River,” written and directed by Haroula Rose, is adapted from the novel of the same name by Bonnie Jo Campbell. The movie is also Rose’s feature-film debut, and it’s an uncompromising, unrelenting look at issues that go deep when it comes to family problems, feeling isolated, and reaching out to find an emotional connection with someone who cares. The movie is intermittently narrated by the character at the center of the story: Margo Crane, who is 15 when this story takes place in 1977, but the narration is of an older Margo looking back on this period of time in her life.

Margo at age 15 lives with her divorced father Bernard Crane (played by Tatanka Means) in the fictional rural town of Murrayville, Michigan. They are both very emotionally wounded by the fact that Bernard’s wife Luanne (Margo’s mother) abruptly left the year before. As Margo explains in the narration, Luanne (played by Lindsay Pulsipher) only left a note saying that she needed to “go find herself” as the reason why she was abandoning them.

Margo also says that she and her father don’t really talk about Luanne leaving, but Margo knows that her father stopped drinking alcohol the day that Margo’s mother left. In Margo and Bernard’s day-to-day existence that’s shown in the movie, Margo and her father have introverted personalities, but she shows occasional signs of teenage rebellion and wanting to be more independent. Bernard can be protective and he will scold Margaret if she goes out in the woods by herself and doesn’t tell him where she is.

Bernard and Margo live next door to Bernard’s white half-brother Cal Murray (played by Coburn Goss), but Cal has a very different lifestyle than Margo and Bernard. As Margo describes it, Cal pretty much runs the town because the Murray family owns a business (which is not named in the movie) that employs many of the town’s residents. Bernard’s job is not specifically mentioned, but it’s implied that he works for the same company in a low-paying, blue-collar position.

Cal has inherited the business from his late father, who was the father of Bernard. It’s implied but never said outright that Cal’s white father was never married to Bernard’s Native American mother (which would explain why Bernard has a different last name), so Bernard and Margo are treated as the “bastard” members of the family. However, when Bernard and Cal’s father was alive, he gave Margo a canoe called The River Rose.

Bernard and Margo live in a cramped and cluttered small home, while Cal and Cal’s wife and children live in a much larger home and can afford to have regular parties at their house. Cal doesn’t see Bernard and Rose as a threat to take over the business, which is why he’s cordial to them. Cal even invites Margo over for hunting target practice with him and Cal’s two teenage sons: hothead Billy (played by Sam Straley) and mild-mannered Junior (played by Arie Thompson).

Cal is impressed with how good Margo is at target practice (she’s a better shooter than Billy and Junior), so he invites Margo to go hunting with them when hunting season starts. Billy, the younger brother, is very jealous that Margo is getting this attention and praise from Cal. Billy grumbles that Margo’s on-target shooting is “beginner’s luck,” and he gets up in her face and tries to be intimidating when he sees that his father might include Margo in family activities that Billy think should be only for Cal’s children.

Margo is never seen in school, and she apparently has no friends. Her relationship with her father is close, but not close enough where they can openly talk about their feelings with each other about how Luann’s abandonment has affected them. And because the Murray family has higher social status in the community than Margo and Bernard, it’s easy to see why Margo would be flattered and willing to go along with whatever Cal wants.

At one of the house parties at Cal’s home, it soon becomes apparent why Cal was paying special attention to Margo. He offers her a drink from his flask of alcohol, and he compliments her by telling her she looks pretty. Cal then tells Margo that he wants to show how to skin a deer, which is a skill he says she’ll need if they go hunting. He takes her inside a shed in the back of the family home. And then, Cal starts kissing Margo, one thing leads to another, and they have sex. Cal asks Margo if she’s a virgin, and she says yes.

One of the female party guests walks near the shed and sees what’s happening. Margo notices that someone has caught them in the act, and Margo puts a stop to what she and Cal were doing. But within a very short period of time (less than two minutes), an angry Bernard comes storming over and gets in a fist fight with Cal, while yelling at Cal to get away from Margo. Word must’ve traveled very fast.

By this time, people at the party have gathered around to witness the fight, including Cal’s wife Joanna (played by Josephine Decker), who has heard that something wrong has happened between Cal and Margo. Cal looks desperately at his wife and immediately says about Margo, “That little slut lured me in there, but nothing happened.” Joanna takes her husband’s side and orders Bernard and Margo to stay away from her family.

Although Margo is not to blame for Cal’s act of incest and statutory rape, she is the one who is shamed for it by the Murray family. When Billy and his friends see her around town, Billy makes derogatory comments about her. And adding to Margo’s humiliation, her father is now on the outs with the Murray family, which could affect him economically in a town run by the Murrays.

Feelings of embarrassment and anger eventually build up to a point where another confrontation happens that changes Margo’s life for the worse. Without giving away too many details, it’s enough to say that she runs away from home and goes on a journey to find her estranged mother. Margo travels by her canoe on the Stark River, with a rifle for protection and hunting, but she gets some help along the way from various people who give her rides by car.

The first person she turns to for help is a man in his late 30s or early 40s named Billy (played by Dominic Bogart), who has been buying the hunted venison that Margo was selling for extra money before she ran away from home. Billy lives with his brother Paul (played by Evan Linder), who is a recovering meth addict. Although Billy has a mild flirtation with Margo and thinks she’s attractive, he doesn’t cross the line by taking advantage of her. Margo’s real named is Margaret, and Billy affectionately calls her Maggie.

While skinning a hunted rabbit in a park, Margo meets a man in his 20s named Will (Ajuawak Kapashesit), who says he’s from the Cherokee tribe and is originally from Oklahoma. He is traveling because he’s going to start a new job teaching a class at an unnamed school. Margo and Will have an almost instant connection and romantic sparks fly between them.

A grouchy old man named Smoke (played by John Ashton) has the biggest impact on Margo, in ways that neither of them expected. Smoke, who used to be a musician, lives alone and has no children. Smoke got his nickname because he’s a heavy smoker.

Margo convinces him to let her temporarily stay in a camper on his property in exchange for her cooking, cleaning, and hunting for their food. She tells Smoke that she’d like to live there until she can get enough money to travel north. Smoke’s closest friend is nicknamed Fishbone (played by Kenn E. Head), a former bandmate who stops by to visit and sells cigarettes to Smoke. Fishbone is not as curmudgeonly as Smoke, but he has varying degrees of reactions in how involved he wants to get in Margo’s problems.

And she definitely has problems that happen before and after she runs away from home. There are some close calls where it looks like she could be caught and put in the custody of child protective services. And in the midst of being homeless for a good deal of the story, Margo also has to be her own private detective to try to find her mother. It’s not an easy task, since her mother moves around a lot, and this is 1977, before Internet searches were possible. And then, more tragedy strikes.

Despite all the problems that pile on Margo, “Once Upon a River” never reduces her to a pitiful stereotype. She experiences some subtle and not-so-subtle racism, but her journey is mainly dangerous and devastating because she’s an underage girl on her own for most of the story. Margo has to grow up fast, but there many moments that remind viewers that she’s still a child who needs love, guidance and role models she can trust.

A great deal of “Once Upon a River” is about family (either biological or chosen) and looking for a place to belong. Writer/director Rose keeps the tone of the movie as realistic as possible, but some viewers might wonder why Margo never has any female allies in this story while she’s looking for her mother. Is it just an unexplained coincidence or is it because has Margo’s abandonment issues with her mother and therefore doesn’t seem to trust other females? We’ll never know.

What is very apparent though is that DelaCerna gives an absolutely riveting performance that skillfully expresses all the emotions and insecurities of a girl who’s on the cusp of womanhood and dealing with some very difficult issues. Thanks to the nuanced direction of Rose and the excellent cinematography of Charlotte Hornsby, “Once Upon a River” has an impactful way of contrasting Margo’s gritty homeless life with the beauty of the woods and river where she hides. It’s an apt metaphor for someone who’s trying to run away from her problems but is on a journey of finding herself and discovering what kind of person she’s capable of being.

Film Movement released “Once Upon a River” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on October 2, 2020.

Review: ‘The Wretched,’ starring John-Paul Howard, Piper Curda, Azie Tesfai, Zarah Mahler, Kevin Bigley and Jamison Jones

May 1, 2020

by Carla Hay

John-Paul Howard in “The Wretched” (Photo courtesy of IFC Midnight)

“The Wretched”

Directed by Brett Pierce and Drew Pierce

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city in Michigan, the horror flick “The Wretched” has a predominantly white cast (with some African American and Asian representation) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A troubled teen who goes to live with his divorced father for the summer thinks there’s something sinister going on at the house next door, but no one believes him.

Culture Audience: “The Wretched” will appeal primarily to horror fans who like bloody gore and stories about evil spirits, but the movie does little to dispel the negative stereotype that horror movies have terribly written screenplays.

Madelyn Stunenkel in “The Wretched” (Photo courtesy of IFC Midnight)

“The Wretched” had the potential to be a critically acclaimed classic in a sea of low-budget, predictable horror movies. Unfortunately, “The Wretched” (written and directed by brothers Brett Pierce and Drew Pierce) devolves into an incoherent mess in the last 20 minutes of the film, thereby wasting the potential that it had in the beginning of the story. “The Wretched” has some impressively scary imagery, given the film’s low budget, but it’s not enough to overcome the movie’s laughably bad ending.

In the production notes for “The Wretched,” the 1985 children’s adventure movie “The Goonies” and Roald Dahl’s 1983 dark fantasy novel “The Witches” are cited as influences on “The Wretched.” The Pierce Brothers also say in the production notes that the evil spirt in the movie (called The Wretch) was inspired by witchy folklore such as Black Annis (from England) and the Boo Hag (from the Appalachian Mountains). Being derivative isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a movie to be if the “inspired by” aspects of the film are elevated by good direction, acting, and screenwriting. “The Wretched” falls short with its screenwriting.

The movie begins “35 years ago,” as it says on screen, where a teenage girl wearing a Sony Walkman goes to a house in a quiet suburban neighborhood in an unnamed Michigan city. (The movie was actually filmed on location in Northport, Michigan.) Based on what’s seen in this brief scene, she appears to be a babysitter. The house is silent and apparently empty, but the movie’s foreboding musical score by Devin Burrows signals that something terrible is about to happen.

A family photo in the house shows that a man and a woman live there with their pre-teen daughter, who looks to be about 7 or 8 years old. But there’s something odd about the photo: There’s an “x” mark scratched on the man’s face. The unnamed teen makes her way to the house’s cellar, where she encounters something bloody and terrifying: The mother, who now looks like a grotesque witch-like creature, is hunched over the daughter and chewing away at the child’s neck to the point where the daughter is almost de-capitated. The teenager screams and tries to leave, only to see that the father is at the top of the cellar stairs, as he slams the door and locks the teenager inside.

The movie then fast forwards to “five days ago,” when the protagonist of the story is introduced. His name is Ben Shaw (played by John-Michael Howard), a 17-year-old who has arrived by bus to live in the area with his divorced dad, Liam Shaw (played by Jamison Jones), for the summer. It’s later revealed in the story that Ben is a teen with a troubled past, and he’s been sent by his mother to temporarily live with his father, in the hopes that it will help Ben straighten out his life.  Ben has a cast on his left arm, and it has something to do with some trouble he got into when he was living with his mother, who’s not seen in the movie but can be heard having phone conversations with Ben.

As soon as Ben arrives at this father’s modest house, it’s obvious that Liam hasn’t spent much time raising Ben, because Ben gives him a kid’s bicycle as a gift. Ben says that he has his driver’s license and that his mother is planning to buy him a car. A sheepish Liam apologizes and admits that he didn’t realize how much Ben had grown up since the last time they saw each other.

Liam works as a manager of a local marina called Porter Bay, where he’s gotten Ben a part-time job as a deckhand who can also give sailing lessons to kids. They live in a seaside city that has a lot of vacation homes owned by the type of people who also have their own boats docked at the marina. Ben soon encounters a privileged group of teen vacationers, led by an arrogant bully named Gage (played by Richard Ellis), who immediately tries to make Ben feel inferior by bossing him around.

During his first day on the job, Ben also meets a friendly co-worker named Mallory (played by Piper Curda), who’s around the same age as Ben is. She teases Ben about the nepotism that got him the job, because he says under other circumstances, someone with an arm cast wouldn’t be able to get such a physically demanding job at the marina. Ben and Mallory have the kind of slightly flirtatious banter that indicates that they could end up dating each other. Mallory has a younger sister named Lily (played by Ja’layah Washington), who’s about 9 or 10 years old and who hangs out a lot at the marina when Mallory is there.

One day while on the job, Ben sees his father Liam romantically kissing a woman near one of the docked boats. It’s the first time that Ben is aware that his father has a girlfriend. Later, when he mentions to Liam that he saw him with this woman he doesn’t know about, Liam tells Ben that her name is Sara (played by Azie Tesfai), and she also works at the marina. Ben said that he would like to meet her. Liam (looking happy and relieved that Ben is open to meeting Sara) immediately agrees and says that Sara can come to the house for dinner that night.

Meanwhile, Liam’s next-door neighbors get their own spotlight in the story. They are tattooed mother Abbie (played by Zarah Mahler), her husband Ty (played by Kevin Bigley) and their two sons—a newborn baby and a pre-teen named Dillon (played by Blane Crockarell), who looks to be about 7 or 8 years old. Abbie and Ty are the type of parents who go to Burning Man (it’s mentioned in the movie) and go to a lot of rock concerts, where they sometimes also bring Dillon.

While Abbie and Dillon are hiking together in the woods nearby, Abbie tries to deny that they’ve gotten lost. While Dillon’s mother briefly walks out of his sight range, Dillon sees a strange-looking tree with a large opening in its trunk. The opening appears to lead underground. All of sudden, he hears his mother’s voice coming from the tree and telling him to walk down into the opening.

As Dillon hesitantly approaches the tree, the voice becomes more impatient and insists that Dillon go through the opening. But then, his mother shows up behind Dillon, and he realizes that it wasn’t his mother calling him from the tree after all. When he glances back, Dillon sees that the tree has disappeared.

Meanwhile, Ben has his own strange encounters. In his first night at his father’s house, he notices what looks like a strange creature creature crawling around the next door neighbors’ front yard, near the cellar.  Ben goes there with a flashlight to investigate and sees a raccoon. But he isn’t entirely convinced that what he saw was a small animal. Just as he’s about to snoop further, Ty catches him in the front yard and asks Ben to leave.

The next day, Ben sees Dillon playing by himself in the front yard, and he strikes up a conversation with the boy. Dillon appears to be homeschooled, so he’s eager to have a “older brother” type to hang out with on occasion. Ben and Dillon end up forming a friendly, almost brotherly bond, but Ben warns Dillon to stay away from the cellar in Dillon’s house. Ben has been spying on the house and is convinced that the epicenter of the house’s evil is in the cellar.

A densely wooded area is within walking distance of both houses, so Ben is aware that whatever he saw could have come from the woods. While Ben is suspicious that something might be lurking near the houses at night, he begins to spy (using binoculars) on the neighbors’ house at night. Abbie and Ty leave their curtains open during some amorous moments, so Ben essentially becomes an unexpected Peeping Tom.

It isn’t long before something horrible and deadly happens that sets off a chain of events where Ben discovers that an evil witch spirit is on the loose. There’s an eerie symbol of the letter “A” upside-down that’s part of the mystery. And when the demonic spirit is nearby, flowers start to immediately wilt and die. Through an Internet search, Ben finds out about the legend of the Slip-Skin Hag, who is a “dark mother born from root, rock and tree” and is a “devourer of children.”

While Ben tries to figure out what to do, he’s invited to some local teen parties, where he gets closer to Mallory. The night that Ben is supposed to have dinner with Liam and Sara, Ben instead goes to one of the parties without telling Liam that he won’t be there for dinner.  Ben and Mallory get drunk and spend some time alone together, and some romantic sparks fly between the two of them. Unfortunately, just as Ben is about to lean in and kiss Mallory, he vomits. (It seems like there’s a vomit scene in almost every movie that has underage teenagers partying.)

While at the party, Ben ignores the numerous calls that he’s been getting from his father. By the time Ben comes home, Liam is furious, and they have an argument, where Ben calls Sara “that bitch you’re sleeping with.” Sara overhears Ben insult her, and she immediately leaves the house, but the argument puts a strain on Ben’s relationship with his father.  Sara and Ben eventually patch things up and make sincere efforts to be cordial to one another.

Things get even stranger after Ben comes home to unexpectedly find Dillon hiding in Ben’s bedroom. Dillon pleads with Ben not tell Dillon’s mother Abbie that he’s hiding there if Abbie comes looking for him. Of course, she does go looking for him. What happens after that is where the movie starts to derail.

The rest of the story has major plot holes where the existence of certain people in the story are denied by others, and Ben is made to feel like he’s going crazy because he seems to be the only one who remembers that these people have existed. It’s not as if Ben has any supernatural powers, but you’d have to believe that an entire community, not just one household, has collective amnesia about these “disappearing” people. And that doesn’t make sense, given that it contradicts people’s memories in later parts of the story.

As for why Ben’s father doesn’t believe Ben’s claims that something sinister is happening at the house next door, it’s explained by Ben coming home late from the parties, and his father assumes that Ben is high on drugs. Given Ben’s troubled past that’s revealed in the movie, his father’s assumption actually makes sense.

After Ben comes home from a party where he was humiliated by group prank led by Gage, something happens that leads the movie down an even more ridiculous and messy path to the point of no return. There’s a surprise plot twist at the very end that makes absolutely no sense. And the very last shot in the movie is a horror-movie cliché, since it sets up the idea that there could be a sequel. (Don’t count on a sequel, since this movie won’t be a sleeper hit or even a cult classic.)

The best parts of “The Wretched” are how the movie builds suspense for the first two-thirds of the film before the story goes downhill into incoherent, poorly edited chaos. The visual effects (which are mostly practical, since the movie doesn’t rely too heavily on CGI) give the movie its most terrifying moments, since “The Wretched” is more in-your-face horror than psychological horror. Madelyn Stunenkel plays The Wretch witch monster in the film. All of the cast’s acting in “The Wretched” is average.

“The Wretched” is the Pierce Brothers’ second feature-length film as directors, after their 2011 zombie flick “Deadheads,” which made the rounds at several film festivals that year but was never released in theaters. (“Deadheads” is now available on home video.) Brett and Drew Pierce are the sons of visual-effects artist Bart Pierce, who did uncredited work on Sam Raimi’s 1981 classic horror flick “The Evil Dead.”

Having a father with a visual-effects background partially explains why the visual effects in “The Wretched” are the more well-crafted parts of the movie. The cinematography by Conor Murphy also achieves the intended atmosphere of voyeurism and terror throughout most of the film. But setting up the right visual environment in a movie is a wasted effort if the story isn’t very good and the editing is sloppy. The Pierce Brothers show hints of potentially making a major breakout film, but “The Wretched” is not that movie.

IFC Film/IFC Midnight released “The Wretched” on digital and VOD and ins select U.S. drive-in theaters on May 1, 2020.

 

 

 

Kroger temporarily removes pre-cut melons from stores in Michigan and Indiana due to possible health risk

June 8, 2018

The following is a press release from Kroger: